Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tolkien vs. Howard -- High Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery

I read an interesting little essay today about looking at today's fantasy through the filter of both Tolkien and Robert Howard. The idea was that readers generally view the two writers as being at the extreme poles of fantasy -- Tolkien with high fantasy and Howard with sword & sorcery -- but that when it comes down to it, the two have more similarities than most would care to admit. I recommend reading the essay.

What it made me think about, though, was my own unswerving difference of opinion with many fantasy readers. So many keep saying that they never want to see any more Tolkienesque fantasy, and they also seem to define Tolkienesque fantasy as having to be the super-complex, world-building, epic journey that Tolkien gave us with LOTR. To me this is just plain silly. I like to imagine Middle Earth as a real place, and further imagine what Tolkien might have done had he had a lifetime more in line with his immortal elves rather than the short life that we mortals must endure. He gave us just the barest taste of Middle Earth, a whisper of what could have been. He laid out so many possible epics in his historical outline The Silmarillion, yet he gave us only one (LOTR).

I like all types of fantasy story. I love the setting of Middle Earth, mostly because it was reinforced by my love of Dungeons & Dragons. So, I would love to see all types of stories set within a Middle Earth-style setting. I want low fantasies, sword & sorcery, epics, and high. This is why the essay about Tolkien and Howard resonated with me. So what if LOTR was high fantasy. Does that mean that there are not denizens of Middle Earth living life more along the lines of Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser? I love to imagine the more down to earth tales that might take place in cities such as Tharbad or Lond Daer. They each have their own gritty tales to tell.

Tolkien's most famous work was epic high fantasy. Does that mean that given a much longer life he wouldn't have written other tales of Middle Earth that were not epic in scope? I see no reason whatsoever to say that a story cannot be Tolkienesque while having almost nothing to do with high fantasy other than having some of the same races in it. This is what I want to do with my Tolkien-style world. I want to write any kind of fantasy story that I wish to tell, only set within a realm that reminds me of what I loved so much in Tolkien's works. I want to write stories that Howard might have been proud of, only with a high fantasy tinge to them.


  1. One has to wonder what else Tolkien might've written. Judging from his style, I'd guess most of it would've been epic in scope though.

  2. There's room for both high and low fantasy in the world, good sir. In fact, I attended a panel at World Fantasy Con last year in which some of the speakers lamented the dearth of Sword & Sorcery books. There's no reason a hybrid of high and S&S can't work in today's market. It could be your niche! :)

  3. Very interesting article, particularly as I've been thinking about doing a Tolkien post sometime in the near future.

  4. Well I've read everything the master ever published, and even several of those books that Christopher Tolkien put out based on his fathers notes, and while I tend to agree that there were probably cutpurses living in Gondor and Gondolin and Annuminas, I tend to think that JRR would have more often elected to write tales about the "higher" stories.

    That's not to say he didn't ever think of "low fantasy" plot elements. I mean if you consider Bill Ferny and the "southmen" in Bree, it's pretty clear he is describing D&D style rogues and thieves.

    Other than that I completely agree. I would love to see more stories, both low and high, set in these kinds of beautiful worlds. So far I consider The Shard a pretty good example.

    I'm still not crystal clear on the difference between High, Low, and S&S. I'll have to go read that essay.

  5. I should clarify: I feel pretty confident that I know the difference between high and low fantasy, but I'm not sure how S&S differs from either.

  6. Matt, I've seen that people have a hard time agreeing on definitions for these. Myself, I see high fantasy as that which uses the basic Tolkien races such as elves and dwarves. Too often it has a clear good versus evil plotline. Low fantasy, at least to me, is fantasy where there is little or no magic involved. These definitions can be combined in stories also. I know you know what Sword & Sorcery is -- Fafhd and the Grey Mouser and Conan pretty much define it IMO.

  7. Totally agree with you on Tolkein, but even if it is complete fantasy to a reader, isn't this fantastic in and of itself?

    Thank you for this insightful look at the comparison of two great writers. You make me want to go on the journey with them again!


  8. It's so funny that people feel compelled to argue. I would agree that if I'd created a world a la high fantasy, that continuing to dwell in that world would be exactly what I wanted to do, and unless the story is somehow TOTALLY finished (a la the Sword of Truth series--but the Goodkind took 10 books to do that), then why not.